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Teachers Turn Their Backs On Schools Chancellor

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was in for quite a surprise when he paid a visit to a meeting of District 21’s Community Education Council (CEC). As soon as Klein picked up a microphone to greet the standing-room-only crowd at I.S. 303, dozens of teachers stood in their seats and turned their backs on the chancellor for the entire duration of his opening remarks. They may have remained silent during Klein’s five-minute speech but the teachers got their point across – printed on the back of their shirts was “Shame on City Hall.” They also held signs asserting, “Education is on the De-Klein.” While school safety agents kept watch of the demonstrators, Klein encouraged the teachers to take their seats and participate in the meeting. “I was so thrilled to see so many people here and particularly so many teachers,” he told the crowd. “If you turn around, we can have a productive dialogue.” With his suggestion falling on deaf ears, Klein elicited a laugh from the audience members still seated. “I hear some people think education is on the decline,” he said in reference to the teachers’ signs. “I always admire people who are creative…Unfortunately, what I’m afraid of is that that’s how some people think it’s spelled.” Unmoved by the joke, the teachers abruptly left the meeting after Klein concluded his remarks and offered to take questions from the audience. Organized by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the evening demonstration was the second of the day for teachers, who, throughout the city, picketed outside of their schools before their first classes began earlier that morning. Working without a contract for nearly three years, the teachers were protesting the stalled negotiations between the city and UFT. “It doesn’t make me happy that we don’t have a contract,” Klein told the teachers before they walked out. However, “Everybody knows that there are things in that contract that have to change.” Talks between the city and UFT fell apart last October because of disputes over salary, tenure and control in classrooms. “There are many schools that need to do a better job,” Klein said. “We need to make sure we have good teachers – not in some schools but in every school.” “We need to work together to get a contract,” he continued. “If we don’t find the things that can bring us together…our kids will suffer.” Outside of I.S. 303’s main entrance, teachers celebrated after a long day of protesting. “This was beautiful,” said Charles Friedman, UFT district representative for Brooklyn and Staten Island high schools. “The only thing I wish I could have seen was [Klein’s] face when we turned around.” Klein “was very flustered. He did not expect this,” said Judy Gerowitz, District 21’s UFT representative. Not all of the educators in attendance were supportive of the demonstrators. “I’m a teacher and I feel disrespected that the teachers walked out,” asserted Ruben Mclaughlia, former coach of the girls’ basketball team at Lincoln High School. With the teachers gone, order resumed at the meeting and Klein spent the rest of his 45-minute stay answering questions from parents, community advocates and elected officials. Elba Tancredi, parent coordinator at Abraham Lincoln High School, wondered why her school was added to the city’s “impact” schools list last January. Implemented in 2004, the initiative sent police officers to the city’s most dangerous schools. “Why is our school – Lincoln High School – on the impact list?” Tancredi asked. “Our school is one of the best schools in New York City. We do not need metal detectors in our school. We want our school off of the ‘impact’ list.” Noting, “Lincoln has done so many wonderful things,” Klein said the extra cops were necessary to maintain order at the Ocean Parkway school. “There were safety issues,” he said. However, since being on the list, “The school is turning around those safety issues and hopefully, very soon it will come off of the ‘impact’ schools list.” Although she has retired from the school system, veteran teacher Ruth Rootenberg is peeved by Klein’s uniform curriculum, which strictly monitors classroom activities. “I’m dismayed to see the demoralization [of teachers],” charged Rootenberg, who taught at city elementary schools for 28 years. “Many talented teachers are leaving the system because of all this micromanaging.” Klein defended his changes. “The people who designed that curriculum and implemented that curriculum are teachers,” he said. During a recent conversation with a teacher, the educator gushed about the uniform curriculum, Klein said. “I’ve never gotten more out of my kids than I did this year,” Klein recalled the teacher saying. “This curriculum is so powerful and it’s working for our kids,” Klein said. “I don’t want to have different curriculums in different neighborhoods because then we set different standards for our kids.” City Councilmember Domenic Recchia believes sibling variance policies should also be reformed. Giving an example of a parent seeking a sibling variance, Recchia said the mother of a student in a SIGMA program at a local junior high school wants her other child to attend the same school. With the kids currently enrolled at different middle schools, the mother must spend extra time driving them to school each morning, the councilman said. “The big issue facing parents today is variances,” Recchia said. “How come there’s not a sibling variance? We need to bring back sibling variances.” The city Department of Education (DOE) is currently examining variance procedures, Klein said. “We are revisiting as we speak the entire sibling variance policy,” he said. However, Klein explained that the DOE must be careful when issuing sibling variances, namely to schools with coveted magnet programs, such as Mark Twain, Bay Academy and Boody junior high schools, as it would limit the number of seats available for qualified gifted and talented students. “You don’t have enough spaces at these schools,” he said. “Gifted and talented has to be based on a child’s skills – not variances.”

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